The time of covid: Communitarian Individualism NOT individualism vs communitarianism

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.

I ran across Fons Trompenaars the other day.  Fons, a native of Holland, is an organizational theorist, management consultant and creator of the Model of National Cultural Differences.  He specializes in guiding corporations on getting things done from the standpoint of acknowledging and addressing multicultural differences.  In this covid time Fons has turned his attention to issues of individual’s responses to corporate and societal ways of staying productive while confronting the virus.  He created an App to rate the scale of individualism vs. communitarianism.  You can read what Fons says and take the survey on his App by clicking

Fons sees opposed values, in a social scientist’s way, where others, like myself, may see moderated ones.  To set in motion opposition with its built in structure of one over the other, victory over defeat is to bypass and disregard moderation with its dynamic, organic process of solution after solution leading to resolution.

Look at us these days.  The “Don’t Tread on Me” camp is very clear that their very liberty is at stake should they be required to wear a mask.  And the “Safety at All Cost” camp is just as clear that no group larger than one’s household members should be permitted to congregate.  In this climate I, admittedly not being alone in this, propose that moderation could create the median way, the way to resolution – if not solution.

Remember when seat belts were the flashpoint?  What an assault on liberty they were.  Whatever happened to those people who thought it was OK to be catapulted through their windshield?  Or how about smoking on an airplane?  Whatever happened to those people who believed it was their First Amendment right to foul the air and harm the health of their seatmates?  And now we have people who make their very own the homemade protest sign that says, “99% Survivability is no emergency.”  As if this particular 1% is guaranteed to not include their family.

One difference between then and now is a President who has shown consistently that the only part of public health that matters to him is his own private health.  The public does not exist, recalling to mind Margaret Thatcher’s line when the Iron Lady declared, “There is no such thing as society.” (as quoted in Women’s Own, 1987)  This is a person (Trump not Thatcher) whose self-image requires, yes, may I say the word, mandates, that he enjoy the full view of his face in any and all mirrors or on TV at all times.  How embarrassing he thinks it would be to meet his fellow autocrats while wearing a mask.  The actions of the public have fallen into the valleys of “either/or” and we don’t seem to be able to climb out of them to meet one another at the peaks of accomplishment.

As our friend, Fons, puts it its :  Individualism vs. Communitarianism.  Go to his website (, find the App, and do his survey.  Answer the questions about whether you follow society’s rules or act on your own choices; whether you “very often” or “not at all” agree/disagree  on matters that take into consideration your behavior’s relationship to others.  It seems to me that even the answers to Fons’ survey increases our distance from each other.  At the same time while negotiating that distance there stands in the midst those preferred media reinforcement platforms which are all about pitting one thing against another for the sake of ratings.

So, I ask why wouldn’t moderation work better than opposition?  In place of individualism vs. communitarianism why not communitarian individualism?  When Jean and I moved to the farm to stay with her Mom, Dolores, in the final few months of her life we brought our daily activities with us – like separating recyclables from the rest of the trash.  On seeing us do that Dolores said, “I didn’t know you were so patriotic!”  This simple act revived memories for her of the years during World War II when President Roosevelt asked the nation to separate cans and other metal things from the rest of the trash of each individual household.  The purpose was to collect all that metal and recast it into usable material for the war effort.  I wonder how many back then saw that as infringement on their rights.  I imagine that Anti-War activists found ways to respond.

Moderation means one principle is put at the service of another principle for the sake of the good of all.  Science confirms the principles and practices of assuring health, such as wearing masks, social distancing, engaging in proper hygiene.  The moderation of engaging in these activities and reducing individual activities of personal choice upholds for a time the principle of community care over the principle of individual choice.

Rather than Fons’ survey’s focus on one act against another on a scale of intensity, perhaps we can come to a view that one act complements the other.  Complementarity happens when for the sake of the individual’s long-term life the short-term practice of community care takes precedence.  The one is of benefit to the other in a complementary way of doing things.

With that view in mind we may be able to address the leadership question, maybe even the media question too.  When the leader abandons communal care to play a preference for libertarian individualism and misuses the motto, “Don’t Tread On Me” it’s no wonder that “us vs. them” characterizes huge swaths of the citizenry.  However, to take on communal care activities for the time needed to flatten and push downward the curve would establish the connection between that President, or any president, and FDR.  That would require a sense of history and an appreciation for what has worked before and can work again.

This moderating view of one principle in service of another doesn’t see value in Fons Trompenaars’ survey instrument.  The complementing of highlighting one value while placing another in the background has worked before.  Think about that the next time you click your seatbelt.  I propose a communitarian individualism because opposition of one over another, one vs. the other, has gotten us to 300,000, and counting, dead fellow citizens.

One final note, since this blog is principally addressed to our Mary of Magdala faith community.  Those pastors who remain fixated on the freedom of the individual to read and interpret the Bible entirely without connection to being a member of the People of God need our prayer.  How may one call oneself a preacher of God’s Word without acknowledging God’s call to moderate one’s actions for the sake of one’s community?  How silly would it be if I want to worship at 1:00pm on a Sunday afternoon and refuse to join the community when, for the best achievable good, the community decides to worship at 10am that same Sunday morning?

In this Advent Season we prepare ourselves for the Incarnation of the Word of God, the manifestation that this human-divine Jesus loves all people – not just me.


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